Following Hurricane Katrina's landfall in New Orleans, and for three weeks thereafter, Aric Mayer was the first and only photographer covering the region for The Wall Street Journal. Driven by relentless determination, boundless compassion, and a workhorse generator—for recharging his Canon EOS 20D battery and providing access to his Digital Railroad online image archive— Mayer captured, stored, and distributed images that have come to symbolize this epic tragedy.
Traveling to breaking-news terrain is nothing new for Aric Mayer, who lived much of his life in Kenya. Journeying through almost every continent with his filmmaker father, he developed an affinity for photography. Today, this award-winning photojournalist and fine art photographer operates out of his studio in Brooklyn, New York, managing assignments for high-profile clients, including MTV Networks' Comedy Central, Bomb Magazine, Hammacher Schlemmer, The Wall Street Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, and other prestigious news outlets.
Over time, Mayer has refined his skill for capturing people and their environments—natural and transformed—with honesty, artistry, and compassion. For this he credits Robert Frank ("I admire the poetic content of his images"), Robert Adams ("who brings honesty and compassion to his images"), and Raymond Depardon ("who knows that the very act of being there influences the work itself"). His aesthetic muses include Jackson Pollock, who "fills the picture plane with his drumbeat of paint," and Anselm Kiefer, who "uses texture and material to carry the message and the image."
When the call came from The Wall Street Journal for Mayer to go to New Orleans, he was in New York working on an advertising project. "I left the city, stopped in Baton Rouge, and bought one of the last Canon digital SLRs in the city, an EOS 20D. Then I borrowed a laptop and headed in," he recalls.
Knowing that rental cars and hotel rooms would be scarce throughout the Gulf Coast area, Mayer flew into northwest Arkansas, where he borrowed a van that would serve as his mobile studio. Six hundred miles later, he was in New Orleans with wheels and a mobile base camp. He shot for hours, stopping only to upload images to his editors at the Journal.
"Working off a power inverter in my van outside the Hyatt in central New Orleans, I was able to use my laptop, download images, input caption and metadata in Photoshop, then upload the images to my Digital Railroad archive." Digital Railroad is an online service that streamlines workflow and helps photographers manage, market, and sell their images to buyers worldwide.
One of those images is our dramatic cover photo. Mayer recalls, "I went to the Orleans Marina with New Orleanians Brobson Lutz, Connie Tenhaaf, and her son Damien to find Connie's car and check on her boyfriend's boathouse. The damage was incredible. Boats 30 and 40 feet long were piled up as far as I could see. Some had been picked up over the retaining wall and left in the park. One boat was in the boathouse living room. Amidst all this devastation, three pet ducks sat on the destroyed dock, wagging their tails and looking to us for food."
Mayer delivered some of the earliest images on the oil spill in Meraux to multiple publications. For days, he and WSJ reporter Chris Cooper approached the Industrial Canal Bridge leading to the Lower Ninth Ward only to be turned back by high water and military roadblocks. Finally they reached St. Bernard Parish driving on raised railroad tracks.
"We were in a foot-deep mousse," he recalls. "At a Murphy Oil Refinery spill we found two guys in haz-mat suits pumping oil into a canal while National Guardsmen were looking for survivors. The troops were visibly shaken. It was an environmental tragedy right in suburbia. The smell was unbelievable; the silence, deafening."
The opening photograph of this article shows the entranceway of Times-Picayune editor David Meeks' home in Lakeview.
Says Mayer, "I first met Meeks when his house was in 10 feet of water and I was in a boat with Chris Cooper. Meeks was canoeing from a friend's house with two cats and a beagle they had just rescued. When the road became passable, we returned to his house to see the damage. Amazingly, his refrigerator floated door-up, his daughter's artwork untouched; the dog bowl was still filled with dry food; and photos in a plastic box remained dry. Pretty much everything else on the first floor was destroyed."
THE PAST IS PROLOGUE
An experienced climber and mountaineer as well as photographer, Mayer is accustomed to tricky terrain, and is acutely aware that being adaptable and quick to act can mean the difference between life and death.
"Last year, I crossed China from Beijing to the Kunlun Mountains—100 miles from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—for a project sponsored by Fujifilm and Hasselblad," he says. "I was working with Simon Allix and Thomas Lallier of Agat Films on a book and movie about our adventures crossing this huge country. At 15,000 feet, near base camp in the Kunlun Mountains, Simon slid down a steep slope and dislocated his shoulder. Far from help, with no radio or cell phone signal, I had to relocate his shoulder and get us down before the approaching storm hit (above, left). We built a French-American peace cairn at the site of his fall—a powerful experience—then struggled to safety."
In brighter days, Mayer had covered Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin—a swamp twice the size of Yellowstone National Park—for an ongoing book project on the American wilderness, and for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.